You, Me and Manatee

Friday January 4, 2013

Ever since we shipwrecked our sorry little butts here in St. Augustine we have been in touch with one of the locals, Chris, who heard our distress call on the radio and through the magic of Google our website right away online and has been giving us helpful hints on the town and even dropped by a few weeks ago to introduce himself and drop of the most delicious chocolate chip cookies we’ve ever had. Through his helpful hints on the best places to visit in town and help us in any way we could need, he also hinted that he’d like to take us to a natural spring just outside of town to see manatees that would gather there in the winter, if we had the time and the want to do something like that.  Not only was it a very generous offer on his part, but perfectly timed since from the moment we arrived in St. Augustine we’ve had our eyes out for them in the water since they are supposed to frequent the area. So an offer to be taken to a place where we knew they’d be seen was enough to get me as excited as if we were going to Disney World.* After the holidays had passed and schedules were slowing down we set a date and planned to make the drive to Blue Springs State Park in Orange City, about a 90 minute drive from St. Augustine.

 Picking us up from the marine center in the late morning we spent the drive over catching up on how the holidays went and the new potential of progress on Serendipity. As we were getting close to the springs, Chris had another treat up his sleeve, he wanted to treat us to lunch at a local BBQ place that was supposed to be a great southern experience. He warned that it may be a little bit of a hole in the wall, but from our past experiences, those usually tend to be the best. Being the neurotic person that I sometimes am, I had already viewed the online menu before we ever set foot in the place, already sure of what I was going to order. Maybe it was because I had skipped breakfast in my rush to get out the companion way in the morning, but suddenly everything was looking good and I was back to square one. Luckily Chris was there to save me as he mentioned that between Matt and I, someone needed to get the steak and rib combo. Strangely having had a conversation on the ride down about how much I was craving a nice, juicy, medium-rare steak, I immediately volunteered myself for the meal while promising to give little pieces to Matt.

When the food came out I was faced with two choices of meat, a perfectly baked sweet potato, coleslaw and garlic bread. Usually enough food to last me for three meals but I didn’t hesitate one second to dig right in. True to his claims of it being an extraordinary barbeque experience, the food did not disappoint and most conversation halted while we all savored what was on our plates. Eating much more than I should have I eventually began forcing pieces of steak and ribs onto Matt’s plate before I could fall into a food coma and never leave the table. He was only too happy to pick up my slack before falling victim to overeating as well and swearing off any more food for the rest of the day. Not before getting a 32 oz Coke to-go for the road though. That boy and his pop. I fear if I ever get between him and his addiction.

Rolling ourselves back into the van we made the short drive the rest of the way to Blue Springs, getting more excited with each mile that passed. The day was cool and overcast, and even as we stepped out into the parking lot there was a light mist that settled on our faces, but nothing could bring down our excitement as we walked toward the boardwalk  with views of the water. Stopping just before the overlook on the spring run we began to read the plaque on the area being a habitat for the manatees in the winter months. Still being close enough to the water to see it from where we were standing, Chris nonchalantly goes, “Oh, I see one right there”. Granted he has been here before so the occurrence wasn’t as new for him, but it was enough to stop both our eyes from scrolling the rest of the way down the plaque and dart to the water’s edge.

Since Chris had sent a link to our Facebook page of the area that I scanned before coming, I knew they tried to keep a daily count of the manatees in the spring, which was hovering just over 100, but Matt had come expecting to really seek them out so he was dumbfounded when we got to the wooden deck perched over the water and there were herds of them in the sprawled out below us. Knowing they’d be easy to spot I was just as thrilled to see them and we turned into those six year olds on a field trip to the zoo, feet bouncing on the ground as I looked below. The sight really was breathtaking though, and not what either of us had been expecting to see. The water was emerald green in color and crystal clear. Looking down there were easily twenty manatees below us, some just hovering in one spot, and others slowly made their way through the water. We stood over one as it moved about directly below us, very interested in the pole that housed the camera for live internet feed.

Although I had seen a few years ago (half a life ago, now that I come to think of it), for anyone who has not seen a manatee or does not know much about them, here is a brief history. What we were standing over watching were West Indie Manatees, or the Florida Manatee to be more specific. These are mammals with front flippers and no hind limbs. Adults are approximately 9-11 feet long and weigh from 450-1,300 lbs. They are sometimes called sea cows, and the name fits pretty aptly. They are large grazers of the sea that move at a slow pace without much agenda. One thing none of us knew was their large geographic range, with the West Indies species ranging all through the Caribbean and even over to the east coast of Central America. Should we finally spot them in the wild we may be seeing them for quite awhile on our journeys.

In addition to the many manatees in front of us were huge schools of fish swimming through the water. My initial thought was, ‘I wish we had brought the fishing poles, these things look like a sure catch‘, but of course it was a no fishing zone so we settled for watching them pass by as we tried to guess the species. Using any basic knowledge we had, and eavesdropping on other’s conversations, we gathered a few names of what we thought was treading below us. Turning my back to the water for the first time I was smack dab in front of a very large and colorful sign that listed photos of the most common fish in these waters and what they were. Quickly we were able to go back to pointing them out in the water and calling them out by name. An added bonus is other people who hadn’t yet seen the sign but eavesdropping on our conversation actually thought we were much more knowledgeable than we actually were. Score one for appearances.

 Making our way up the run we continuously got closer to the spring, but also lost sight of the manatees the closer we got. Once upon the spring there was no vegetation and only a few gar fish. The spring itself looked like a gash in the water just a few shades darker than the water around it. There was a large branch resting across the top of it and you couldn’t see very far down, but from images on posters in the area the spring was a popular diving area that went down close to 150 ft and ran at an angle ending 130 ft to the side of the entrance. Not that I’ve ever even been diving before, but it looked a little narrow in some areas and probably would have made me a little claustrophobic, but I have a few friends that probably would have enjoyed it. The area is open to swimming in general in the summer months which looks fun, take a quick dive down and come right back to the surface. Another fun fact about the spring is that it pushes out over a million gallons of water a day. That’s incredible!

Going back to where we had originally started and where 98% of the manatees were gathered. We watched them float around for a little longer before heading to other viewing areas closer to the river, and supposedly where alligators could be seen at times. Yet another thing on the list of animals we have not managed to see yet on this trip. Keeping our eyes peeled in the much darker waters of the river there were no beady eyes hovering at the surface. Just as we looked the other direction there was a thrashing in the water that was quite violent and more than a splash. It was most likely a manatee having a little fun in the river, but none of us saw, and we can’t quite be sure. So to satisfy my imagination and happiness I’ll pretend that it was an alligator wrestling something, other than a manatee, in hopes for a late afternoon snack. What we were able to get visual confirmation on though was a bald eagle resting in a tree top, the second one we’ve seen in Florida now thanks to Chris’ help (who knew there was one that hangs around near the boat yard?) With chances of an actual alligator sighting growing slimmer we headed back to the park grounds.

Just before leaving we took a quick tour of the Thursby house, a plantation built in the mid 1850’s from the first people to settle at the springs. Only the first of three floors was open for viewing and while most rooms were empty of furnishings but housed photos and information of the homes history. Based on other homes of the era that we had toured on our travels south this one seemed to have much larger room, hallways, and even higher doors than what we had been used to seeing. Something comperable to if it were just built in the past 20 years. I think I smell some remodeling? After having covered every inch this park had to offer us we climbed back in the van for the drive home, tired but completely fulfilled. It was such a special and thoughtful trip, and we’re so lucky to have met Chris take us under his wing and share experiences we’d never be able to have on our own. It sounds like it’s going to be the first of many though, so stay tuned as we may actually have other adventures coming up while we’re stuck on the hard.

*He also gave us tickets to Disney World since he gets them for volunteering there.  How nice is this guy?!



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